The Placenta

Outline the functions of the placenta, and determinants of placental blood flow.

The placenta is an organ of maternal and foetal origin which supports the developing foetus.

Physiological Properties

The placenta has three broad functions:

  • Interface between foetus and mother for nutrient exchange
  • Immunological barrier
  • Endocrine

Nutrient and Waste Exchange Functions

The primary purpose of the placenta is diffusion of nutrients and oxygen, and removal of waste.

As with the lung, diffusion is dependent on Fick's Principle, i.e.:

, where:

  • = Flow of substance across the membrane
  • = Area of the membrane
  • = Diffusion constant for the substance, where
    • Molecules < 600 Da in size more readily diffuse down concentration gradients
  • = Concentration difference across the membrane
    • Maternal placental flow is ~600mL.min-1 at term - double that of foetal flow - which improves diffusion by increasing the concentration gradient for solutes
  • = Thickness of the membrane

O2 Diffusion

At the end of pregnancy, PO2 for foetal blood:

  • Entering the placenta via the umbilical artery is 18mmHg (SpO2 45%)
  • Leaving the placenta via umbilical vein is 28mmHg (SpO2 70%)

The foetus is able to have adequate delivery of O2 despite the low PO2 for four reasons:

  • High Cardiac Index
    Increased cardiac output increases DO2.

  • Foetal Hb
    Contains two gamma subunits instead of beta subunits. These prevent the binding of 2,3-DPG, which result in a left-shifted Oxy-Haemoglobin dissociation curve, favouring oxygen loading at a low PaO2.

  • Foetal [Hb] is 50% greater than maternal [Hb]

  • The Double Bohr effect:
    The Bohr effect states that an increase in PaCO2 right-shifts the oxyhaemoglobin dissociation curve. Conversely, the affinity of Hb for O2 increases in alkalaemia. The double Bohr effect describes this happening in opposite directions in the foetal and maternal circulations, favouring transfer of O2 to the foetus:
    • In the placenta, foetal CO2 diffuses into maternal blood down its concentration gradient
      This makes foetal blood relatively alkaline, and maternal blood relatively acidic. Therefore:
      • O2 unloading of maternal blood is favoured
      • O2 loading of foetal blood is favoured

CO2 Diffusion

CO2 is extremely lipid soluble, and so passes easily across membranes. Foetal PaCO2 is ~50mmHg, and intervillous PCO2 is ~37mmHg. CO2 offloading is favoured in the foetus by:

  • A high Foetal [Hb] increases the amount of CO2 that can be carried as carbaminohaemoglobin
  • The Double Haldane effect:
    The Haldane effect states that deoxygenated Hb binds CO2 with more affinity than oxygenated Hb. The double Haldane effect describes this happening in opposite directions in the maternal and foetal circulations, favouring CO2 transfer to the mother:
    • As maternal blood releases O2, this favours maternal loading of CO2 without an increase in maternal PCO2 (Haldane effect)
    • The release of CO2 from the foetal Hb favours O2 loading, which in turn favours further maternal O2 release.

Nutrient Diffusion

In late pregnancy, foetal caloric requirements are high (approximately the same as the mother). Facilitated diffusion of glucose via carrier molecules occurs in trophoblasts.

Active transport occurs for amino acids, Ca2+, Fe, folate, and vitamins A and C. Other transporters actively remove substances from foetal circulation.

Immunological Function

The placenta is selectively permeable to IgG via pinocytosis, which allows maternal antibodies to provide passive immunity to the foetus.

Endocrine Function


  • βHCG
  • hPL
  • Oestriol
  • Progesterone


The placenta develops simultaneously from foetus and mother:

  • From the uterine wall, the mother produces blood sinuses around the trophoblastic cords
    • These in turn send out placental villi
  • This creates a sinus of maternal blood invaginated by multiple foetal villi

  • Foetal villi are supplied by two umbilical arteries and a single umbilical vein

  • Maternal sinuses are filled from the uterine arteries
  • The maternal sinuses are supplied by spiral arteries

Properties of the Developing Placenta

  • Thick(er) membrane impairs permeability
    Placental membrane permeability is small in early-to-mid pregnancy, reaching maximum at ~34 weeks
  • Smaller surface area

Properties of the Mature Placenta

  • Thick membrane - improved permeability
  • Surface area of 14m2
  • Weight of ~500g
  • Blood flow of 600mL.min-1 at term
    Flow is reduced during contractions due to increased uterine pressure and also with α-adrenergic stimulation.


  1. Hall, JE, and Guyton AC. Guyton and Hall Textbook of Medical Physiology. 11th Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier. 2011.
  2. Kam P, Power I. Principles of Physiology for the Anaesthetist. 3rd Ed. Hodder Education. 2012.
Last updated 2021-08-23

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